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The AIPAC Case in Washington, Iraq, and Beyond

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The New York Times story today on the dropping of the government case against the AIPAC lobbyists Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman comes in separate parts, not entirely signaled by paragraph breaks or outward format. The report by Neil A. Lewis and David Johnston sets out to answer three questions. What was this investigation about? Who is pleased and who displeased by the reversal? And why was the case dropped at just this moment?

The last question is the easiest to answer. The Justice Department announced that the charges would be dropped two days before the opening of the 2009 AIPAC Convention. One may have noticed earlier that the Obama administration and the government of Israel play each other on a tight clock. Israel withdrew from its devastating assault on Gaza only hours before the inauguration of Barack Obama. The administration has let off the AIPAC lobbyists in time to be considered a sentimental encourager and not a spoiler of the mutual uplift that marks the annual AIPAC gathering.

About the contest within the Justice Department over the pursuit of the case, the Times reporters Lewis and Johnston finesse every point of actual information with aggregate nouns, omitted definite articles, and many unnamed sources. We are told that "F.B.I agents poured substantial resources into the case, and the decision to seek a dismissal infuriated many within the law enforcement agency." The FBI is itself part of the Justice Department, and its agents are likely to have been conversant, if anyone was, with the sort of evidence needed for a conviction, even under the difficult burden of proof required in this case by Judge T.S. Ellis III. We are told that Joseph Persichini, Jr., head of the bureau's DC office, was also disappointed by the decision to drop the charges. Whom does that leave satisfied? The final decision was made, say Lewis and Johnson, "solely by career prosecutors in Alexandria." So the Obama administration acted in obedience to the wish of "prosecutors," but it is left unclear whether this was the wish of all the prosecutors.

Nor were they the only persons present at the discussions. "While senior political appointees at the Justice Department did not direct subordinates to drop the case, they were heavily involved in the deliberations." Heavily involved. "David S. Kris," unnamed sources told the Times, "the newly appointed chief of the department's national security division, and Dana J. Boente, the interim United States attorney in Alexandria, had conferred regularly with prosecutors and ultimately decided to accept the recommendation to abandon the case. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. was informed and raised no objections." A curious sequence of facts. Holder raised no objections to a decision which was arrived at by prosecutors with the help of two men -- a fresh appointee and an interim U.S. attorney -- whom he himself had sent into the discussion for some purpose. Let us assume he was not displeased with a result that his own men had sought, even against the wishes of the relevant office chief at the FBI.

Whether or not it was the right decision, it was a clearly in part a political decision. But what was this case about? Here is how the New York Times lets AIPAC immaterialize:

While Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman trafficked in facts, ideas and rumor, they had done so with the full awareness of officials in the United States and Israel, who found they often helped lubricate the wheels of decision-making between two close, but sometimes quarrelsome, friends.

The above words should be ascribed to the paper and not the reporters -- they are cast in the idiom and carry the momentum of an editorial. Smoother words were surely never uttered about spying; but under every phrase is a hidden premise.

"Facts, ideas, and rumor": let us break it down. Were the facts true? And if true were they state secrets? Were the rumors true? If so, they, also, were facts. If the rumors were untrue, to be of value they must have been accurate reports of an intent to make use of a falsehood. Both sorts of acquisition, of course, have always been greatly interesting to foreign states.

"Ideas": bright ideas? speculations? These would only be important if traced to a source. But to know who puts forward which ideas is to possess inside knowledge of no small value.

"With the full awareness of officials in the United States": which officials in the Unites States? Not, apparently, Joseph Persichini. And not, one would guess, the director of the FBI Robert Mueller III, either. Was Representative Jane Harman one of the officials who approved of the passing of facts with full awareness? Was Douglas Feith?

"And in Israel": which officials in Israel? Was any member of the lately formed government of Israel, with which the Obama administration now must deal, a party to the passing of classified data? For example: Binyamin Netanyahu's national security appointee Uzi Arad, a former Mossad agent who, according to the Washington Post, was for many years denied U.S. security clearance "because of a meeting he had with a Pentagon employee involved in leaking information." If he was among the "officials in Israel" who approved the commerce between Lawrence Franklin, Steven Rosen, and Keith Weissman, that would be useful to know.

"They often helped lubricate the wheels of decision-making": lubricate -- delicate word. But the wheels were oiled by grease that had to be smuggled in; and somebody must have been slowing down those wheels for the lubricant to have become necessary. Decisions, the Times doubtless means to say, were tipped one way, but this was exactly the way that those in charge of both countries would have wanted to see them tip. Meanwhile the confidence of those who gave advice to the contrary was being breached; which is to say, the outcome of the discussion was prejudiced.

Like most stories of spying, this one has a prehistory. And like many stories about Israel and the neoconservatives, the prehistory of the case against Rosen and Weissman lies somewhere in the run-up to the war in Iraq and its immediate aftermath.

For the precursor of the FBI investigation of Rosen and Weissman was the FBI investigation of Ahmed Chalabi in 2004. There, too, very substantial accusations seemed on the point of being leveled against a prize asset of the neoconservative forces in the White House; there, too, the accusations were dropped for reasons obscure to the public.

Lawrence Franklin, who was sentenced to twelve years in federal prison for passing information to Rosen and Weissman -- information the Times says both governments knew and approved of having passed -- was also a target of that earlier FBI probe. According to a Washington Post story by Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks on September 3, 2004, the FBI closely scrutinized both Franklin and Douglas Feith in that U.S./Israel/Iraq inquiry; for, as Wright and Ricks noticed in an unsettling paragraph, the 2004 investigation had extended far beyond Chalabi:

The FBI probe is actually much broader, according to senior U.S. officials, and has been underway for at least two years. Several sources familiar with the case say the probe now extends to other Pentagon personnel who have a particular interest in assisting both Israel and Chalabi, the former Iraqi dissident who was long a Pentagon favorite but who has fallen out of favor with the U.S. government.

The earlier FBI probe of the Israel Lobby, then, was aimed at the convergence of Chalabi -- the most effective outside promoter of the Iraq war -- and a huddle of persons "who have a particular interest in assisting Israel." But the probe also branched out, in a second direction, to cover links between some particularly pro-Israel officials in the U.S. government and "a pro-Israel lobbying group." This sounds as if it might have been AIPAC.

Wright and Ricks, in their Washington Post story of September 2004, continued:

There appear to be at least two common threads in the multi-faceted investigation. First, the FBI is investigating whether the same people passed highly classified information to two disparate allies -- Chalabi and a pro-Israel lobbying group. Second, at least some of the intelligence in both instances included sensitive information about Iran.

The broader investigation is also looking into the movement of classified materials on U.S. intentions in Iraq and on the Arab-Israeli peace process, sources added.

U.S. officials said the alleged transfer of classified intelligence to Chalabi has been part of the FBI investigation at least since a raid in May by Iraqi officials on the Baghdad compound of Chalabi's party, the Iraqi National Congress. Classified U.S. intelligence material was found in that raid, a senior official said.

Thus, two main features of the 2004 investigation were: (a) it touched on the Arab-Israeli peace process, and (b) it related to the occupation of Iraq -- the likely future (it may be guessed) as well as the recent past of that occupation.

The previous FBI investigation also brought to light sensitive information about Iran. Remember that Ahmed Chalabi, "a Shiite but our Shiite," was at that time accused of leaking information to Iran. And recall that this accusation somehow tactfully disappeared without ever being answered or dispelled. An unnamed source in the Wright-Ricks article, close to U.S. intelligence, said that the investigation was only an outward sign of a deeper conflict between CIA regulars and the overseers brought in by the Office of the Vice President to fix the facts around the new policies.

The new people won out -- with what results in Iraq we know. They also appear to have succeeded in quelling the investigation of Chalabi. It is true that Chalabi's extraordinarily poor showing in the Iraqi election of December 2005 -- he received too few votes to earn a seat in the national assembly -- called the neoconservative bluff regarding the cordial welcome democracy would offer to the people we were backing in Iraq. Yet a position was found for Chalabi: he was made Oil Minister of the new Iraq; placed in control of the one national asset the U.S. guarded with care, while the library of Baghdad was pillaged and the museum looted. Such things may happen by accident, but two, or three, or several of them cannot be strung together so as to form a convincing pattern by accident.

Through the recent tergiversations of policy and prosecution, including the conduct of the U.S. government against "enemy combatants," the FBI has played a relatively honorable part. To judge by the evidence of internal disputation that has made its way into public view, the bureau moved on at least three occasions to prevent U.S. policy from being corrupted by secret influence and by a twisting of international law. In all three cases, the FBI was overridden -- in the first instance, the dispute over torture, by lawyers for President George W. Bush; in the second, over Chalabi, by the people around Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld; and in the third, to infer the what is all but clinched in the Times today, by U.S. attorneys coming late to a difficult case and putting their hand in the scale to achieve a result that President Obama wanted.

These perplexities are bound to continue until we change the situation that fosters them. For the recurrence of plausible accusations against AIPAC, the difficulty of both bringing and completing a case against its lobbyists, and the bad faith of the reasons that must be used to pretend that the cases are frivolous or the evidence negligible, all throw us back upon the question, Do we really want the U.S. to have a "special relationship to Israel" -- with all the benefits and allowances this brings to adepts of channeling like Rosen and Weissman, and the sub rosa understanding that the American people have consented to the arrangement? In that case, every friend of Israel is a friend of the U.S., and there is no such thing as spying for Israel. An Israeli agent caught passing state secrets becomes an American agent by definition.

How close is Israel to the United States -- in politics, national interest, practice of equality, and other relevant traits? How close do the people of either country wish us to be? AIPAC is based, of course, on an ideology of total identification. It would be absurd to claim that someone could spy on America for California or New York. Someone who seems to be doing that must be trying "to lubricate the wheels of decision-making" between the federal and state governments that are "close but sometimes quarrelsome friends." The New York Times supposes the idea of information passed from the U.S. to Israel without both sides wanting it passed is likewise simply absurd. The true doctrine is, they know we know they know. With the exception of the agents at the FBI, and maybe a few U.S. attorneys, everybody understands. But do we?

The suppressed alternative is that we treat Israel as an ally with whom we sympathize, but with whom on occasion we have differences which we are not afraid to show. Can Israel become again, what it once preferred to be, an ally of the United States in the same sense in which France or Australia is an ally? Or will it press, like AIPAC, for total identification of interest and cause? Our friends are your friends, our enemies are your enemies, our weapons are your weapons. And our self-destruction? It is time to slow down and look hard.